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J.J. McCullough


Media Bites: Are We Heroes, Or Was Mali Just On the Way?

Posted: 01/17/2013 8:47 am

If you like your tales of Canadian do-gooding to be humble and cutesy, I imagine you'll be charmed to learn that the primary reason why our air force intervened in Mali this week was because we were already in the neighbourhood.

See, Canadian special forces had been hanging in northwest Africa since early January, training Nigerese soldiers as part of Exercise Flintlock, a rotating, U.S.-led initiative to provide military assistance to fledgling regimes in that troubled part of the world.

The French, meanwhile, were busily bombing Islamist rebels in next-door Mali as part of a UN-backed mission to bring about peace and stability yadda yadda. Despite the killings, the whole thing has actually proven quite popular with the Mali folk, who have grown tired of being terrorized and killed by Al Qaeda-backed fanatics (go figure).

Anyway, the Frenchies were getting stretched a bit thin, so on Monday they picked up the phone and politely noted that since we Canucks were already so close and all, maybe we could be lending ze spare jet, no?

Aw shucks, if you really think it would help, replied Canada.

Though the totality of our French collaboration in the Mali affair will be a single week of logistical, non-combat support, this still marks Canada's biggest military intervention in a foreign warzone since the Libya unpleasantness of 2011.

Captions courtesy of the Associated Press.

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  • Geography

    Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Mali's north is currently under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country's south. The current fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the militants from spreading further south toward the seat of power. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Two main groups now appear to be competing to govern northern Mali: Ansar Dine, which wants to see Sharia law brought to Mali, and separatist rebels who already have declared an independent state. (AP Photo)</em>

  • The People

    Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako. Here, men and women sometimes ride three to a motorcycle in a city where bikes have their own lanes on the bridges connecting Bamako, divided by the Niger River. Mali's population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country's north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years. <em>Malian refugees walk on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • The People

    Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure, as well as global exports Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangare. Before a spate of kidnappings carried out by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, the fabled city of Timbuktu was a popular tourist destination and the country hosted an annual music event called Festival in the Desert. Westerners also flocked to the stunning mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country, where guides bring people from village to village in a community long studied by anthropologists. <em>Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, performs on December 15, 2012 at the French Institute in Libreville. (ERIC BEAUDENON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Religion

    Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and the call to prayer regularly echoes across communities where prayer mats and beads are sold on the streets. The northern city of Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning and today the city still has some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, though extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year across the north when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. <em>A Malian refugee sits on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Religion

    The Islamists have provoked international outcry by razing historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves. Many women in southern Mali work outside the home and do not wear the veil, though polygamy is still common throughout the country. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo)</em>

  • Strategic Importance

    Analysts worry that the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali's north are using the vast, desolate region outside government control to prepare for attacks outside Mali's borders. Given the country's historical ties to France, the former colonizer, many Malians pass back and forth between the two countries. <em>Caption: Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)</em>

  • Resources

    Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country's third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold. <em>Caption: In this May 17, 2010 file photo, a boy in Sokolo, Mali rides a donkey cart. (AP Photo/ Martin Vogl, File)</em>

  • Democracy

    Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali's then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 11, 2012 file photo, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Pankaj Nangia, File)</em>

  • Democracy

    Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali's military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be during the French-led intervention. <em>Caption: Wives of the Red Beret, a military unit which was in charge of protecting former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, hold signs reading '' Peace in Mali'' as they march in the streets of Bamako on July 16, 2012 to demand their husbands' release and the ''truth'' to be told on ''disappearances''. (HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/GettyImages)</em>

  • Challenges

    Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write. Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to accompany their parents into the fields to work at a young age or to be involved in the country's mining industry. <em>Caption: In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, Mariam Orgho, 3, looks at her mother, Coumba Seck, sister-in-law of Samba Bayla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)</em>

So are we, as a nation, cool with this? You better believe our buds in the Canadian press have a lot to say!

Actually, "a lot" might be pushing it. Even after a bunch of idiot-proof CBC FAQs and arrow-filled National Post infographics, the Mali situation remains one of those stories whose central subject is so dense and obscure it takes about six paragraphs just to provide a bare minimum of context (ie: Where is this place? Who runs the government? Who are the rebels? Are we supposed to call them "Malimites" or "Malimars?" etc), leaving scant space for analysis (ie: Why should I care?). Luckily, the overwhelming punditsphere response has been so passively supportive of our government's exceedingly modest French-boosting, a couple sentences is really all anyone needs.

Fine, good, whatever, says the Globe and Mail editorial board it's "hard to imagine reasonable objections," to loaning a single airplane "to aid a close ally with closely allied interests in preventing the spread of a virulent and cruel strain of Islamism." No duh, agrees the gang at the Toronto Star, the "world has an interest in not seeing Mali collapse into an Afghan-style haven for Al Qaeda and other extremists," and if that requires a bit of Canadian "help from the margins," I guess it wouldn't kill us to spare a C-17 or two.

Everyone also agrees, however, that the least Canada can do should also be the most Canada will do. No one's in the mood for another decade-long round of nation-building, writes Michael Petrou in Maclean's, and absent the Malimar rebels setting off any "bombs in Toronto or Washington," excuse us if we'll be "keeping our distance" from the internal chaos of some third-world hellhole whose previously best-informed Canadian constituency was children with flags-of-the-world sticker books.

We're busy enough fighting our own war back in Canada, anyway. Sure, it might not be a Mali-style civil war where hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes due to all the hand-choppings and rapes and whatnot ("run-of-the-mill barbarism," as the Globe board dubs it). More of a war on unsustainable government expenditures. But it's still pretty intense! I mean, have you seen our military budget lately?

The Prime Minister certainly has. And Harper's Canada, writes Jon Ibbitson in the Globe, is a nation "hoping to knock down its deficit in part by curtailing military spending," which is bad news for an unwinable African tribal conflict which pretty much has bottomless money-hole written all over it. Harp's basically gone from bomb-happy neo-con to "reluctant warrior," approvingly nods Thomas Walkom in the Star.

As any young undergrad can attest, receiving even the most rudimentary education in Canadian politics now invariably includes a mandatory slog through some pompous study of "Canadian Foreign Policy" -- an academic field, its insecure scholars insist, possessing just as much intellectual substance and coherence, as say, subtraction.

We Canadians are "honest brokers" who "punch above our weight" and believe in the "responsibility to protect" and all the rest of it, they say. Take a close look at everything this country's done around and for the world lo' these last decades and you'll see an inspiring bundle of consistently moral actions bound by a beautiful ribbon of elegant principle.

Once you're out of school and begin to watch the headlines, however, it becomes harder to ignore the decidedly inelegant possibly that Canadian foreign policy is actually governed by much of the same lazy logic as the rest of Canadian life -- namely, we'll do whatever's cheap, fast, popular, and easy, and -- if time and cost permits -- right.

Especially if it's already on the way.


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